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Engaging Privacy and Information Technology in a Digital Age
period.19 AOL sought to anonymize users by substituting a code number for their login names, but the list of inquiries sorted by code number shows the topics in which a person was interested over many different searches. A few days later, AOL took down the 439-megabyte file after many complaints were received that the file violated user privacy. AOL acknowledged that the publication of the data was a violation of its own internal policies and issued a strongly worded apology. Some users were subsequently identified by name.20
A related kind of IT-enabled company—the data aggregation company—is discussed further in Chapter 6.
3.7 BIOLOGICAL AND OTHER SENSING TECHNOLOGIES
The technology trends outlined thus far in this chapter are all well established, and technologies that follow these trends are deployed in actual systems. There is an additional trend, only now in its beginning stages, that promises to extend the sensing capabilities beyond those that are possible with the kinds of sensors available today. These are biological sensing technologies, including such things as biometric identification schemes and DNA analysis.
Biometric technologies use particular biological markers to identify individuals. Fingerprinting for identification is well known and well established, but interest in other forms of biometric identification is high. Technologies using identifying features as varied as retinal patterns, walking gait, and facial characteristics are all under development and show various levels of promise. Many of these biometric technologies differ from the more standard and currently used biometric identification schemes in two ways: first, these technologies promise to allow the near-real-time identification of an individual from a distance and in a way that is non-invasive and, perhaps, incapable of being detected by the subject being identified; second, some of these mechanisms facilitate automated identification that can be done solely by the computer without the aid of a human being. Such identification could be done more cheaply and far more rapidly than human-mediated forms of identification.
Joined into a computing system like those discussed above, such identification mechanisms offer a potential for tracing all of the activities of an individual. Whereas video camera surveillance now requires human watchers, automated face-identification systems could allow the logging
Saul Hansell, “AOL Removes Search Data on Group of Web Users,” New York Times, August 8, 2006.
Michael Barbaro and Tom Zeller, Jr., “A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749,” New York Times, August 9, 2006.